"A good experience doesn't erase a bad one. In some ways, it highlights the bad experience even more by shining light into every crevice of that dark time. It gives it a perspective of range and degree that I couldn't previously comprehend. I had nothing good against which to compare it.
Now I do.
My baby was born on March 30, 2011. He is the only one of my three children I feel I've actually given birth to.
This birth story really begins with my two older sons, who were surgically extracted. I was an incubator whose job was over, and needed to be cracked open by a professional to get to the real prize. The first time wasn't so bad. They say ignorance is bliss, and in my case that was true. I had no idea what it meant to have a cesarean section. I didn't know it meant months of initial healing, followed by a year of aches, pains, and compromised core muscles.
I also didn't know that my first cesarean would be used as the sole indicator for the following “elective” repeat cesarean. The one even my doctor didn't recommend. Under duress created by an artificial time line, I signed the consent form. The whole time the only thought running through my mind was, “this is wrong.” After it was over, that thought (mantra?) didn't go away. Many other things did though, and they were replaced by a number of common trauma symptoms, including amnesia (I don't remember much of anything for the five months following that surgery), anxiety, depression, persistent invasive thoughts--usually a variation on a replay of the surgery, or how it could have gone if I had tried to fight it (in all of these scenarios, I still failed)--all things I battled for many, many months. My thoughts only began to clear as another trauma symptom appeared: avoidance. When I realized that the problems I encountered in the deliveries of my two older sons were inherent in the hospital maternity system, I knew I couldn't go back to it. I knew if I did, it would likely cost me what was left of my sanity, and probably my family as well.
So my search began for an alternative that wouldn't make me crazy(er). I hit a lot of walls, but managed to find a midwife who was willing to help me. For the first time since my last surgery, I felt peace. I was finally able to bond with my younger son, and his cry didn't make me shut down entirely (usually resulting in me locking myself in my bedroom with a pillow over my head). Maybe a month or two later, my husband and I were pregnant again. It was time to put this new way to the test.
The prenatal care was like night and day in comparison to what I got with a regular doctor or OB. Not to suggest my care with doctors has ever been bad, but it still could never measure up to the attention I got with my midwife. It was like the difference between learning how to play an instrument in a large ensemble versus taking private lessons from someone who specializes in your instrument.
The appointments were much longer, and allowed time to actually form a relationship. My midwife was able to discover more about my previous experiences and guess what effect they might have on this experience. I had time not only to give her a good idea of what I wanted (which took me a while to figure out myself), but I had the time to feel comfortable enough to express those desires. Whenever something came up, rather than upping my risk factor, she gave me ideas how to lower any risk. Usually the advice came in the form of suggestions for healthy living in general, with a strong emphasis diet and nutrition. I knew before I ever went into labor that at the very least, my prenatal care in future pregnancies would be with a midwife.
On March 29th, I felt mild contractions all day, but they didn't seem to change or progress, so I ignored them. I don't think I even mentioned them to my husband. I had a pretty good idea that things would pick up soon though. The morning of the 30th, I could already tell the contractions had changed. They still weren't remotely uncomfortable, but in the back of my mind I knew I'd probably have a baby very soon. Remembering how long labor was with my first though, I figured I wouldn't see any real action until late that night, or early the next morning. I mentioned the contractions to my husband, but didn't make a big deal about them. I didn't tip off that I might need him to come home later, because I didn't think anything would happen until after he came home.
My in-laws were visiting, helping to prepare my home for when baby arrived, with plenty of freezer meals and a cleaner house. My mother-in-law and I had talked about visiting some of the local trading posts earlier. She was busy making meals, but I suggested we go sooner rather than later. While she put the finishing touches on a lasagna, I sent a text to my husband, warning him that I really was in labor. The contractions were starting to feel a little uncomfortable, but I could still ignore them. I also put my midwife and doula on alert. My doula asked if I wanted to walk with her, but I wanted to get some stuff done first, so I said no.
I drove my mother-in-law to a few trading posts in town. We bought some Navajo-made jewelry, and did a little walking around. Our last trip took us near the hardware store, so I called my father-in-law and asked if he needed us to pick up anything for our sprinkler system (which he had kindly volunteered to expand). My midwife texted me asking if anything had changed. I replied that the contractions were more intense, but seemed further apart. I hadn't exactly been paying much attention to the clock.
I had a contraction as we entered the store, and since I was thinking about it, I mentally noted the time. I've spent a lot of time at the hardware store, so I was able to quickly locate the few items my father-in-law said he needed. I knew I had previously miscalculated how close together the contractions were when I had another one as we were checking out. I checked the time. Ten minutes. I let my midwife know, and she informed me that she and her assistants were getting ready to leave (they had a very long drive ahead of them). I still felt okay enough that I drove us home, but I began to feel a little nervous that the midwife wouldn't make it.
When I got home, my husband called and asked if I needed him yet. I told him “not really,” but if he wanted an excuse to come home, he had one. Apparently his students were very worried that I was in labor and he wasn't with me, so his call was mainly to reassure them. Then he passed the phone around his classroom (and the adjacent music classroom) from girl to girl who had questions about labor and childbirth, etc. About half of the girls simply asked what I was going to name my baby. I dodged that one, because even though I pick out a name in advance, I like to have the wiggle room to change it on a whim if I feel the need.
Throughout these micro-conversations I was walking through contractions. I was also getting slightly annoyed at how many people I was talking to, especially since I don't hear well over the phone (which is a major reason I don't like to call people), and middle school voices are comprised almost entirely of the higher frequencies I can't hear well. I found myself having to either guess what they said, or asking them to repeat themselves. Mostly, I think my irritation was just a sign of progressing labor.
I went inside, where my mother-in-law was fixing an early dinner of pork chops and potatoes. It smelled good, but the noise was really beginning to bother me. I tried to hide in my office, which I had set up as my birthing area, since it had the most empty floor space (except for the living room, but the transparent curtains offered no privacy). Leaning over a birth ball felt good, so I tried that for a while, but people kept calling for me from the other room and asking me questions. I knew I needed to get out of the house.
My husband called and said he was coming home soon. We took a moment to celebrate the fact that he could skip his classroom management professional development class later that evening.
As soon as I was off the phone with my husband, I called my doula and asked her to come over. My mother-in-law announced that dinner was ready, but I wasn't remotely interested anymore and told her to eat without me.
It was a relief when my doula showed up at my door and I could escape everyone else's needs. We talked as we walked around the entire neighborhood. About half way through I felt done walking (but still had to walk home). I was also sweating, even though it wasn't particularly hot.
When we made it home, I had my doula and husband set up the birth pool while I hung out over my birth ball, which was quickly becoming insufficient for my needs. As they were fiddling with water spouts, I texted my midwife, letting her know the contractions were frequent and intense. She called in the middle of a contraction, so my doula kindly answered the phone for me and told me that they were about an hour away. While that was comforting, I still wasn't sure they would make it. Things were picking up much faster than I remember with my oldest (the only other labor experience I had).
My weaksauce hot water heater ran out of hot water too soon, but once there was enough cold water in the pool to reach the minimum water mark, even the lukewarm water was a relief. Not quite as much as I had hoped, but it did help. I think it would've been more effective if it weren't for the back labor. It wasn't long before I caught myself vocalizing (something I assured my-suffer-in-silence-self I wouldn't do!) but it felt good, so I gave myself over to it. Thankfully, by now my in-laws had finished dinner and taken my older boys to their hotel.
The biggest relief came from my diligent doula, who was working hard applying counter-pressure during each contraction. I remember consciously deciding to rest quietly between contractions, even though I could still talk/move if I wanted to. At one point I felt my vocalizing change a bit as my body wanted to push. It wasn't strong yet, but it was enough to send my mind scrambling a bit. I had never gotten this far before. I knew this was something I could do, but I didn't consciously know how. That was an uncomfortable feeling, even knowing that my body knew exactly what to do. I also wasn't quite ready to let go yet, especially because the midwife and her assistants hadn't arrived yet.
Thankfully they walked through the door just after that thought crossed my mind. I could feel myself relax considerably when my doula whispered they'd arrived. Of course I really had nothing to worry about, because even though I was feeling a little pushy, I still had plenty of time. It was around this time that I noticed how aware I was of everything. Even though I was physically quite preoccupied, my mind was entirely aware of every sensation, and my thoughts were perfectly clear. I don't know that I've ever felt so self-aware. Communicating was a different story, but I could still get a word in here or there.
Inside my sphere of awareness, I felt the baby's head inside the birth canal. I was sure he'd be out in another push or two, but I was trying to not consciously push. I wanted to let my body direct that part, since it seemed to know more about it than I did. My mind was busy focusing on letting go of him. I didn't want to. I had to give myself permission to let him out. This was when I learned exactly how long the birth canal actually is. I could feel him moving down, and each time he did I thought for sure his head was about to pop out, and each time he merely moved down a little more.
At one point I remember thinking that I was done, that I'd reached my limit, especially with the intense back labor. But I could think clearly enough that I knew the I'm-so-done feeling meant I really was almost done. And then I felt his head pop out. It didn't hurt, especially not in comparison to the back labor. If anything it was the first bit of physical relief I'd felt in hours. I did feel a slight sharpness for a moment, which I would later learn was a first degree tear, likely caused by the little hand he had up by his face, and his slightly posterior position.
My midwife whispered that I should slow down and breathe for a minute. Easy. I could feel the hardest part was over now. I leaned over the side of the pool and rested while I knew I could. After about a minute, I felt his little body flip around suddenly. It was pretty much the coolest feeling ever. A few moments later he was out and in my arms.
The first thing I noticed was his full head of dark hair, which didn't surprise me at all. What surprised me was that I wasn't surprised! I only have baldies, where did this hair come from? But the moment before I saw him I had a flash of a moment from a mostly forgotten dream, where I gave birth to a baby with a head of dark hair. Yeah, pretty weird.
I loved him instantly. That was new. Even with my oldest son I didn't feel like he was really mine for a day or two. For my (now) middle son it took months. Someone asked what his name was, and I looked to my husband for a moment to see if he had any impression that the name we picked didn't fit. He shrugged and said he didn't feel any differently about the name, so I introduced our son as Peter. He was born in the caul (cool!) at 6:48 PM, weighed 8lbs 3oz, and was 21½ inches long.
I held Peter in the water, quietly observing him and trying to sort through everything I was feeling. I decided that mostly I was in awe. I know other feelings were there too, but they were too far overshadowed by my overwhelming love for my newborn son. I couldn't even think to remember that I had earlier been worried about not being able to expel the placenta. It came out just fine a few minutes later.
Then I was out of the pool and cleanup was underway. After that, it was snuggle time with my baby boy, and it has been pretty much ever since.
When my older boys came home later that night. My oldest was very excited and wanted to hold “Baby Peter.” The toddler was a bit more tentative, but looked at Peter, then looked at me and said, “Wow!” Yeah, pretty much.
Days later, my husband still occasionally sees it fit to inform me that I'm still smiling. Yup. I sure am. Oh, and Peter smells wonderful. That was one thing that particularly bothered me about the time after my other sons' delivery. He never smelled like baby to me, even though others claimed he did. He never smelled "mine". Not a problem this time around.
And now I find myself at a critical crossroads. I got what I wanted. I know how I can get it again. In a way, I'm free to leave the “birth sphere” entirely if I wish. I don't need it for myself anymore. On the other hand, I feel like I've been led here. There's no mistaking the things I felt before going into surgery for my second cesarean. Everything was going to work out for the best. I had nothing to fear. I knew that at the time clearer than I've known anything. Anything.
I know I would never have made the choices for this birth that I did without that terrible experience to lead me here. Not a chance. I had to be dragged here. Now that I'm here, I know I'll never leave. But was I led here just for me and my family? Or am I supposed to do something else with this? At this point, I can't tell you. But I can tell you this: my life changed overnight. I'm not the same person I was before Peter was born. I'm not the same person I was before my other sons were delivered. I'm better, stronger, and happier than ever. I love all my children more than I ever have. I love my husband more than I ever have. Who knew the other side was so amazing?
If I had it my way, I'd birth with these people every time. Unfortunately, this is unlikely, for various logistical reasons. At least now I know exactly what I want. I feel a little cheated that I couldn't have this experience my first two attempts, but at the same time I can't quite work far enough past my current bliss to care.
I can live with that."
Artwork by Jennifer Lavender